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Tuesday, July 26, 2011
Summer Buzz: Pittsburgh Panthers

By Eamonn Brennan

For the next month or so, our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive Insider preview with some adjusted efficiency fun. Today's subject: the Pittsburgh Panthers. Insider

If you've been hanging out this summer, you'll remember this visit with Pittsburgh guard Ashton Gibbs at the Nike Skills Camp in Chicago. Gibbs, who might be the purest shooting guard in the college game, was participating in the Deron Williams Skills Academy. Naturally, he was surrounded by point guards, players used to facilitating teammates and finding their own shots. Gibbs, on the other hand, has been a curl-screen-and-spot-up 2 guard for his entire career. So why sign up for a point guard camp?

Gibbs' reasons were both collective and individual. To have a shot at the NBA -- the senior tested the waters before returning to Pitt this spring -- he has to prove to scouts that he is capable of playing a combo role; he lacks the size and athleticism most NBA scouts want in modern shooting guards. More pressing, though, is coach Jamie Dixon's need for Gibbs to do so much more with the ball in his hands. The Panthers are going to remain as tough as ever on the interior. The steady inertia of Dixon's program practically guarantees it. But for the first time in recent years, questions exist. Chief among them: Can Gibbs do what he's done in his first three seasons -- hyper-efficient spot-up shooting, basically -- while also taking a larger and more diverse command of the offense?

In today's Summer Buzz, ESPN Insider LaRue Cook delved into the Synergy scouting data Insider to prove just how drastic a change this might be:
According to Synergy Sports, more than half of Gibbs' plays last season were spot-ups or screens, and nearly 50 percent of his jumpers were of the catch-and-shoot variety. In other words, Gibbs wasn't generating a ton of points for himself or for others on his own. So Big East teams would be foolish not to double every time he crosses half court, meaning those reserves and blue-chip recruits Dixon keeps stocked better be ready to produce. If not, Pitt won't have an easy march to its 11th consecutive Dance.

Anyone who's watched Gibbs the past three seasons recognizes as much. He's at his best running to space off the ball, where he utilizes screens in classic, fundamental ways. It's as simple as reading your defender and deciding whether to curl, fade or slip; well-coached eighth graders learn this stuff, but so few players execute it well at the college level. Gibbs, on the other hand, is as good as anyone. If not better.

There is some good news here. For one, despite the loss of guard Brad Wanamaker, Pittsburgh does have a suitable replacement in junior Travon Woodall, who notched an assist rate of 28.6 percent in reserve duty last season. Likewise, Pitt's main offensive attack in 2011 came thanks to offensive rebounding, and while the Panthers will no doubt miss the bruising presence of Gary McGhee on the offensive boards, it retains Nasir Robinson (who grabbed a promising 9.5 percent of available offensive rebounds despite playing next to his rebound-hogging counterpart) and will add a top-ranked center (and arguably the highest-profile recruit of Dixon's tenure) in forward Khem Birch. Many of Gibbs' open looks came as the result of rebounds and kick-outs. It's fair to assume many of those same looks will be available in 2012, too.

In other words, Pittsburgh's not going to stop rebounding the ball. That's the most important feature of this team, one that has kept its offense among the nation's best for the past few seasons. But the Panthers weren't just a chuck-and-grab bunch like, say, West Virginia in 2011. They were also efficient before the ball hit the rim, hitting 39.5 percent of their 3s, the 12th-highest percentage in the country. Will those looks still exist for Gibbs? Will he be able to get them if he is the primary ball handler? Will defenses honor high ball screens, or will Gibbs face constant traps and hedges? And if he does, will he be able -- and this is one of the things he said he has worked on all summer, including at the Nike camps -- to attack those matchups with the panache of an experienced ball handler?

We know Pitt will rebound. We know it'll be tough inside. We know Robinson, whose crucial mistake led to Pitt's upset loss to Butler in the NCAA tournament, will be as durably motivated as ever. And we know Gibbs will be able to make open shots. What we don't know is how everything will work before the ball goes into the air. If Gibbs evolves into the multifaceted player he wants (and needs) to be, then there's little reason for concern. If Woodall is as capable as he was last season, then it might not matter. But if neither of those things happen, a team whose offense has drive its recent success will find itself struggling to score for the first time in years. That's not a welcome prospect for any Pitt fan. We'll see.